Saturday, January 15, 2011

What's Happening In Tunisia, Explained

The Tunisian dictator, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali (Ben Ali), has fled the country and the Army has taken power.

Reports just emerged around 12:30 p.m. Eastern time that the Tunisian dictator, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali (Ben Ali), has fled the country and the Army has taken power.

Want to know what's happening in Tunisia? Let me explain:

What is Tunisia? Tunisia is a mostly Arab, mostly Muslim country in North Africa. It is on the south side of the Mediterranean sea, east of Algeria and west of Muammar Gaddafi's Libya. Its capital is Tunis, and it has been ruled by dictators since it won independence from France in 1956. The current ruler, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali (Ben Ali), has ruled since 1987. He is the kind of ruler who gets re-elected with 90 percent of the "vote."

What's happening? Violent riots and protests have spread across the country over the past four weeks. Now Ben Ali's totalitarian government seems to be collapsing. (Elliott Abrams, a former Bush administration official who unfortunately is rarely right about anything, thinks that if democracy can take hold in Tunisia, is could spread elsewhere in the Arab world, too.)

Why are Tunisians unhappy? Well, they don't have much freedom. But there also just aren't enough jobs. Official unemployment is 13 percent, but it's probably actually much higher. The combination of a repressive regime and a faltering economy is often bad news for the regime. Plus, the regime has diverted a lot of the country's wealth to Ben Ali's family and friends, so people are really upset about official corruption.

How did it all start? On December 19, authorities in the small, central city of Sidi Bouzid seized the produce cart that 26-year-old Mohamed Bouazizi was using to make a living. So Bouazizi set himself on fire. Young people in the small, central city of Sidi Bouzid rioted, and police moved to seal the city. In early January, Bouazizi died, becoming an early martyr for the cause. Brian Whitaker, the Middle East editor of the Guardian and a Tunisia expert, has agood article explaining how Bouazizi and Sidi Bouzid got the ball rolling on revolution.

What's the WikiLeaks connection? Foreign Policy's Christopher Alexander explains:

Shortly before the December protests began, WikiLeaks released internal U.S. State Department communications in which the American ambassador described Ben Ali as aging, out of touch, and surrounded by corruption. Given Ben Ali's reputation as a stalwart U.S. ally, it mattered greatly to many Tunisians—particularly to politically engaged Tunisians who are plugged into social media—that American officials are saying the same things about Ben Ali that they themselves say about him. These revelations contributed to an environment that was ripe for a wave of protest that gathered broad support.

Hackers affiliated with Anonymous, a vaguely defined, loosely organized group that has defended WikiLeaks, hit Tunisian websites in early January.

What's the latest news? A visibly shaken Ben Ali appeared on national television Thursday night, promising reforms and indicating that he would step down in 2014. But protests only grew larger on Friday. The very latest—i.e., what happened Friday afternoon—is that Ben Ali has fired his cabinet and promised legislative (but not presidential) elections in six months. Then he declared a state of emergency. Police are definitely shooting at protesters, according to an American quoted in this New York Times report. The very very latest is that Ben Ali has fled the country, according to Al Jazeera, and the Army has taken power.

How do I follow what's happening in real-time? Your best immediate resource is theTwitter feed of Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi, a columnist for The National, the United Arab Emirates' leading English-language newspaper. The hashtag to follow (or "feed," as theTimes mistakenly dubbed it) is #sidibouzid, after the city where the first riots took place.#tunisie is another good option. Al-Bab, a blog written by Brian Whitaker, the Guardian Middle East editor mentioned above, is indispensable. Whitaker's latest posts—"Tunisia: Double or Quits," and "Tunisia: The Last Days of Ben Ali" are must-reads. If you're looking for a more US-centric view, you should also check out "Tunisia on the Brink of Revolution?" and "When Pro-Western Regimes Fall: What Should the U.S. Do?" over at Democracy Arsenal.

Friday, January 14 2011
Wikileaks disclosures play key role in Ben Ali's outing

First of all I would like to say that I am sorry for the repression and the people who have died in Tunisia but excited about the unexpected overthrow of an Arab dictator by its own people.

While I am no expert on Tunisia and defer to others for an in depth analysis I have visited the country a few times as well as many other Arab countries (Syria, Lebanon, Morocco, Egypt and others) I am happy that a corrupt dictator who has been in power since 1987 was thrown out by popular rebellion. And as this article explains it took the American diplomats and Wikileaks efforts to reveal what many Tunisians suspected and that is the extent of the government's corruption and abuse. Now the paradox here is obvious. USA spends hundreds of billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of human lives are lost in a bloody military intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq with very little success. And instead, diplomats telling a detailed story about corruption in Tunisia and a group of determined journalist/hackers at Wikileaks accomplished what a decade of military intervention in the Middle East could not and that is a popular uprising against corruption and dictatoriship. Yes, the realities of Afghanistan, Iraq and Tunisia are different but as this New York Times article explains, many in the Arab world are watching Tunisia and wondering how long will they put up with their own Ben Alis.

It is interesting though that it took a combination of Wikileaks and US diplomacy to ignite the rebellion. Most likely if it had been Hillary Clinton alone telling this to the Tunisian people it would have backfired. I think the State Department should learn a lot from Tunisia and rethink Wikileaks.

Martin Varsavsky

No comments: